Why the Business Tax Reform Proposal in Obama's SOTU Is Not as Great as It Sounds


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In his State of the Union address, President Obama touched on tax issues a few times, most prominently in connection to business tax reform.

“Both Democrats and Republicans have argued that our tax code is riddled with wasteful, complicated loopholes that punish businesses investing here, and reward companies that keep profits abroad.  Let’s flip that equation.  Let’s work together to close those loopholes, end those incentives to ship jobs overseas, and lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs here at home.”

Which companies does President Obama think should get these tax breaks for creating jobs here in the U.S.? In 2012, President Obama told a crowd at a Boeing plant in Washington State that companies that use tax breaks to shift operations and profits offshore ought to pay more U.S. taxes and the revenue “should go towards lowering taxes for companies like Boeing that choose to stay and hire here in the United States of America.” At that time CTJ pointed out that over the past ten years, Boeing had paid nothing in net federal income taxes, despite $32 billion in pretax U.S. profits.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth: A lot of the corporations doing business in the U.S. already are paying little or nothing in taxes, as demonstrated by CTJ’s 2011 study of consistently profitable Fortune 500 corporations – a study that examined the U.S. taxes paid on the corporations’ U.S. profits. Even for those companies that do pay a reasonable effective tax rate in the U.S., there is no real economic evidence that lowering their tax rate will lead to economic growth for America. 

In fact, the U.S. corporate tax is far lighter than the corporate taxes imposed by other countries. According to the Department of the Treasury and the Congressional Budget Office, federal corporate tax revenue in the U.S. was equal to 1.2 percent of our economy in 2011 (1.5 percent if you include state corporate taxes). The average for other OECD countries (which include most of the developed countries) in 2011 was 2.9 percent.

While the President did say that savings from closing tax loopholes could be used to lower tax rates, he immediately followed that by saying:

“Moreover, we can take the money we save with this transition to tax reform to create jobs rebuilding our roads, upgrading our ports, unclogging our commutes – because in today’s global economy, first-class jobs gravitate to first-class infrastructure.”

But notice the fine print – he says this is revenue that would be raised in the “transition to tax reform,” rather than a permanent, sustainable increase in tax revenue. As we have explained before, some revenue that would be raised if business tax loopholes were closed would be permanent, sustainable revenue – but the President wants to use that revenue to offset reductions in the corporate tax rate. But closing these tax loopholes would also produce some revenue that is temporary, meaning it would only show up in the first few years or so. This temporary revenue increase cannot be used to pay for anything that is permanent (like the reductions in tax rates). Instead, the White House argues, reasonably, that a temporary revenue increase should be used to pay for something that is temporary, like a boost in infrastructure investments.

But the main goal of tax reform should be to raise revenue on a permanent basis from both the personal income tax and the corporate income tax. When budget cuts have literally led to children being kicked out of Head Start and reductions in investments like medical research, the need for revenue is obvious. The need to lower Boeing's effective tax rate further below zero is not.

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